Duck boats should have been made illegal years before the Missouri tragedy that claimed 19 lives, due to key design flaws, says an attorney who has handled two wrongful death cases involving duck boats.
Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney with the Philadelphia firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, P.C., handled cases involving duck boat deaths in 2015 and 2010 and each time renewed calls for a ban of the popular amphibious tourist attractions. 'Duck boats' are actually modified military vehicles, built using old models of the WW2 DUKW landing boats, which were used extensively during the U.S. invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
"These half-bus, half-boat novelties are actually ‘tourist deathtraps’ on land and in the water,” Mongeluzzi said. “What does it take for tour operators to realize that they cannot value profit more than human life and public safety?"
In the Branson, Missouri, tragedy, the boat went out during a thunderstorm before being capsized by choppy waves. 17 drowned, including the boat's captain and nine members of one family. Former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Jim Hall also spoke out after the incident to say he believes all duck boats should be banned nationally, a position Mongeluzzi agreed with.
Ride the Ducks Branson said it was "deeply saddened" by the recent drownings and vowed to cooperate with the NTSB investigation while also paying for all victims funeral and medical expenses. They said they can't comment on the investigation, but did not indicate they would cease running duck boat tours.
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Mongeluzzi, who called duck boats "inherently unsafe," represented the families of two Hungarian students who died after a disabled duck boat on which they were passengers was hit by a tugboat in the Delaware River in 2010. Video during the incident which was introduced at trial showed one 16-year-old victim throwing a life preserver to one of the boat's crew who had gone overboard before herself drowning. The case was settled for $17 million.
Mongeluzzi's partner Andrew Duffy said co-counsel on that case, said safety issues evident in that case apparently were not addressed by duck boat operators, like Ride the Ducks, which operated the Branson, Missouri duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake on July 19, killing 17 of 31 people on the boat.
“Tragically, it appears that numerous recommended life-saving safety improvements were never made to the duck boats – before and after the fatal 2010 Philadelphia disaster," Duffy said. "Our engineering experts showed how the vehicles were actually engineered to fail in a water emergency, their canopies trapping passengers in their life jackets rather than allowing their escape."
In 1999, under former Commissioner Hall, the NTSB noted the danger of the boats canopy roofs in a report on a 1999 duck boat sinking in Arkansas in which 13 drowned.
Dangerous duck boats
In 2015, 68-year-old tourist Elizabeth Karnicki of Beaumont, Texas, was killed in Philadelphia after being hit by a Ride the Ducks vehicle as she crossed the street. Some 18 months after her death, the Ride the Ducks company canceled all service in Philadelphia due to rising insurance costs, laying off some 42 staff. Also in 2016, a 28-year-old woman on a motor-scooter was hit and killed by a duck boat in Boston in April. Mongeluzzi says the vehicles post drivers 10 feet above street level and are unsafe on city streets.
In Boston, where duck boat tours continue, Mayor Marty Walsh said stepped-up safety regulations including having life vests accessible under the roof instead of under the seats, additional staff on boats, and carefully monitoring of weather conditions makes the boats a safe tourist option.
But Duffy and Mongeluzzi say that is not possible.
“It’s been clear for decades, as the death toll mounted, that the duck boat industry has not and will not follow non-binding recommendations and self-police," Duffy said. "If they are not legislated out of the duck boat business they’ll continue to operate and, tragically, more innocent lives will be lost.”